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Motor vehicle record access survives challenge

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         CONNECTICUT         Freedom of Information         May 16, 2001    

Motor vehicle record access survives challenge

  • A judge backs a decision by the state Freedom of Information Commission that records of cars and owners held by the local tax assessor are still open for public inspection, despite the provisions of the federal Drivers Privacy Protection Act.

A trial court judge has reaffirmed the open records status of information about motor vehicles held by local tax assessors. The ruling is consistent with an earlier decision issued by the state’s Freedom of Information Commission and is one of the first cases to determine the reach of the Federal Drivers Privacy Protection Act.

In March 1999, an insurance investigator attempted to inspect the “grand list” of motor vehicles that each Connecticut municipality is required to maintain. A grand list contains descriptions of motor vehicles including names of their owners, information obtained from the Department of Motor Vehicles. State law specifically includes these lists among the documents open for public inspection, unless prohibited by another law.

The City of Bridgeport denied a request by Barbara Brennan, an insurance investigator, to review the grand list from 1997 and 1998 because, the city claimed, both federal and state law exempted the list from disclosure, but the state’s FOI Commission ordered the records disclosed

In its April 27 opinion, the trial court in New Britain, Conn., upheld the commission’s ruling. It said that neither the federal Drivers Privacy Protection Act nor a state statute applied prohibiting release of DMV records to the tax assessor. Instead, the judge said, the federal law applies only to the state DMV. Both the state and the federal law prohibit the release of personal information contained in DMV records.

A unanimous U.S. Supreme Court ruled in January 2000 that Congress properly exercised its commerce power when it required state agencies to ensure that drivers authorize the release of personal information about themselves except for certain authorized uses such as law enforcement and insurance coverage.

The FOI Commission, created in 1975, renders binding decisions in open records and open meeting disputes. Decisions by the four-member commission may be appealed to a trial court.

(Davis v. Freedom of Information Commission) CC

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© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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